The High Line is a glorious, sandy garden in the beating heart of New York City, full of ideas for gardens and gardeners around the world. It’s a landmark, an ever-changing horticultural and social scene – and a source of inspiration.
This garden does not seek to hide its industrial roots. The abandoned train tracks that run through the elevated park by the Hudson River are as much a part of the garden as the flowering shrubs, perennials and grasses that bloom there. The High Line celebrated its 10th anniversary this year and opened an extension, known as the Spur, the last section of the old freight line 30 feet above the hustle and bustle of the city streets. With the addition of the Spur, the thriving Greenway of the High Line is now almost 1.5 miles long. Millions of visitors explore the space every year while enjoying stunning views of the bustling city and river.
Eric Rodriguez, High Line’s director of horticulture, is the steward of hundreds of thousands of plants, many of which are perennials and grasses native to North America, woven into a design by famous Dutch planter Piet Oudolf. The High Line is not a model of unobtainable perfection, says Rodriguez: it is a garden full of possibilities for everyone. âWe are actively trying to encourage people to take their ideas home,â he says.
The design of the park is inspired by the wild and invasive nature that established itself on the trails in the 25 years after the line was abandoned. It is a vibrant, exciting and densely populated garden – incomparably beautiful in all seasons – filled with hard-working perennials, shrubs and small trees. It’s also an eco-friendly place, designed to invite pollinators and conserve resources, and maintained without the use of herbicides or pesticides.
Rodriguez sees the High Line planting plan as “a vertical sandwich”. In each zone, he says, “we have a grass matrix, and on top of that is a perennial herbaceous matrix.” In areas with woody plants, the design expands to include a layer of shrubs and a canopy of trees – but as the soil is only about 8 inches deep throughout the High Line , only relatively small trees and shrubs can be planted. Multi-stemmed species, including buckeyes, edge trees and serviceberry trees, thrive in harsh conditions, exposed on all sides to wind and weather, as well as reflected light and deep shadows cast by large buildings.
Although most High Line trees are never giants, deciduous trees embrace beds in summer; in winter, their trunks, branches and bark confer a rare beauty. Multi-stemmed trees and shrubs are easier to manage in the garden than single-stem plants, Rodriguez explains. When the stems get too tall or too thin, or start to grow out of bounds, they may be cut (sometimes down to the ground) and new stems emerge. It’s also a great strategy for home gardeners.
Oudolf’s planting design requires extremely tight spacing – six to eight plants per square foot. To make this work, “we put plants very small,” says Rodriguez. âIn some ways we push back instant gratificationâ by using smaller plants, he says, but the style of planting helps the garden conserve resources. Tight spacing reduces watering needs as plants shade the soil, limiting moisture loss through evaporation. Tight spacing also helps control weeds. Gardeners all over the world, including on the High Line, says Rodriguez, “are always trying to think about how to work less without compromising their aesthetics.”
Spring and summer on the High Line are beautiful, of course, but fall and winter are also spectacular seasons to experience the garden. Drying foliage and perennial grasses rustle in the wind, and their seed heads cast elegant shadows and attract birds to the park during the winter. The wintry light shining through the twiggy tracery of the trees creates a dramatic contrast to the built environment all around. Dormant plants under a gray sky or in the snow allow visitors to better appreciate the season. âIt’s important for us to have the full life cycle of plants,â Rodriguez said. High Line gardeners do not cut herbaceous perennials and grasses until spring.
During the winter, gardeners nurture new ideas for the seasons to come, Rodriguez says. They are considering new species to add to the garden, looking for plants that will perform well in the changing urban environment. Buildings with reflective glass increased heat and light in some areas along the High Line, and the wind speed and pattern also changed as new buildings were built nearby. Among other things, gardeners are interested in introducing more plants that attract beneficial insects, says Rodriguez, “and we’re adding things we want just because they would be fun and pretty.”
The High Line is not strictly speaking a garden but a park, and gardeners are inspired by nature. They study plant communities in the region’s native plant reserves, including coastal areas, where vegetation must be tough. The ideas they bring back to town make the High Line more beautiful and more sustainable, says Rodriguez, and the result can make you forget, just for a minute, that you’re in New York City. But look again: this garden couldn’t be anywhere else.
If you are going to: The High Line is a public park located on the West Side of Manhattan. There is no admission fee. The park begins at the intersection of Washington and Gansevoort streets, near the Whitney Museum, and continues to 34th Street, just past Hudson Yards. The High Line is an old elevated train line, so you’re on top of the traffic.
More ideas from the High Line
Here are some tips and ideas from Eric Rodriguez, Horticultural Director of the High Line:
– A solid design is the basis of any good garden. Aesthetic design and well-chosen plants allow you to devote your time and resources to becoming a good steward of your local environment.
– Plants native to your area will thrive in the climate and conditions of your garden.
– Choose plants that attract pollinators and beneficial insects.
– Conserving resources sometimes means letting things go. Remember that death is part of gardening. âGardening becomes less stressful when you have a comfortable acceptance of the death of certain plants,â says Rodriguez. Even experienced gardeners sometimes kill plants.
– Learn to appreciate the complete life cycle of plants. Perennials that have worked hard in the garden all summer and fall should not be disturbed during the winter. They are home to birds and insects, help prevent erosion, and create a natural mulch for themselves and surrounding plants. Cut back perennials in early spring, not fall.